Cathy Kudlick and Georgina Kleege recorded an interview together at StoryCorps San Francisco on August 21, 2014.
This is the first of two parts. Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On interactions with the blind community
Cathy: So Georgina, one of the things that brought us together of course was we’re both blind people or sort of imperfectly blind people as you put it in some of your writing and I wanna know about the first time that you met a blind person and what you remember about that blind person.
Georgina: I think the first time I met a blind person was actually a group of blind people. And I can’t remember, it was when I was a student, and I can’t remember if it was when I was a senior in high school or maybe in college, but I had been brought into a meeting for a class action lawsuit against the Educational Testing Services because they had some of their tests in alternative formats for blind and visually impaired students but not all of them.
And so someone had organized a bunch of students who were in this category to come together and meet and talk about whether or not we wanted to join this lawsuit. And, like you, well, not like you, I had become blind when I was 11 but I had a mainstream education like you had and so I really didn’t know any other blind kids as I might have if I’d gone to a residential school for the blind.
And I was sort of socialized, to pass, as much as possible. That I got a lot of praise for behaving as if I could see. So I, I really was conditioned not to think of myself as blind. So suddenly I found myself in this room full of blind people who had canes and dogs, and at the time I didn’t use a cane, and they were all kind of activists and very vocal and, aggressive about this lawsuit. So I was really kind of intimidated, because, in a way, I had been for all my all the time that I’d been blind I had been trained to think that it was bad idea to behave as if I was blind or to admit to it and here I was with a room full of people and so it caused a lot of ambivalence for me. I was asking myself do I really belong here? Am I blind enough? Are they judging me, all those types of questions.
So, it wasn’t really until now, that would have been back in the 1970’s, so it probably wasn’t until the 1990’s, when I began to develop a disability identity that I met other blind people and became friends.
On writing and connecting with other blind people
Cathy: And, and what made you develop a disability identity?
Georgina: Well, it came out of my writing that I’m a creative writer. I wrote fiction. In the 1990s I started writing nonfiction because a lot of people had always said, oh, you should write about your blindness, because you know, although when I was a young person, I was sort of socialized to be kind of private about it and to pass and to disguise it as much as possible.
As an adult, I came out more and more and people were interested in what I had to say about the experience. And so people say, “Well, you should write about this.” And at first I kind of balked because I looked to other texts, other authors, other blind authors to see what kind of models were out there and they sort of fell into two categories. They were either kind of the mournful blind people who said this is…the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and my wife is terrible, and, you know? And that wasn’t my experience. Or there were the sort of valiant overcomers who you know, triumphed over adversity and…I’ve overcome my blindness and now everything’s perfectly fine. And that didn’t speak to me either, so I sort of had to find a different way to talk about it. And so that’s what I tried to do. And to be honest, I thought I only had one essay to write about the subject.
Cathy: Three books later.
Georgina: Yes, exactly and but having written one essay then other things occurred to me and then I started to be in touch with people who read the work and it spoke to them, and so then…that kind of snowballed into other things. So for instance, that was how I met you because you had read my work and wrote me an email about it so.
Cathy: I remember reading your book and just, this book sight on seeing your first sort of collection of essays around blindness and…It was just one of those books and I started to read and I was like, “Oh my gosh this person has climbed inside my head and she knows what I have been thinking” and I’ve been craving finding something, to read something like this. There’s nothing like this out there.
And it was like this amazing moment because I realized I wasn’t the only one…I felt I was in this conversation with you and I just had this amazing epiphany that there was another one. My goodness. In my own case the blind person that I remember meeting in school was the one other blind girl that went to special ed. I was in special ed classes in mainstream. And she was, she was completely dreary and completely embarrassing and I just I thought that’s not me. I can’t be that and so you know, meeting you…you were the first person that I met that was not that dreariness. …you were irreverent. You were smart. You thought about stuff. You had this creative way, so it was really exciting. Do you remember then, meeting your first sort of cool blind person? It doesn’t have to be me. I’m kidding. [LAUGH]
Georgina: Well, it was you, Cathy…I thought I was writing to sighted people and I thought I had something to say to sighted people and it didn’t really occur to me that my experience would resonate with other blind people. So when you wrote to me and said nice things…I mean, it wasn’t just that you said nice things, but you said, “This is my experience.” And…when we met, we kinda shared different experiences from different times in our life and it was such a revelation to be with somebody who totally got it about all sorts of facets of being blind in a sighted world. And you know, everything from kind of large, profound issues to kind of day to day annoyances, about getting around or people asking you stupid questions…all the things that happen. So it was kind of a revelation to me to say, “Oh yeah…I can write to blind people too.”
On Helen Keller as a ‘role model’ and historical figure
Georgina: I had many issues with Helen Keller, as this sort of icon, I mean the, the quintessential overcomer and…when I was a kid, she was sort of held up as this role model of, of how a disabled [person] was to behave and how you were never supposed to complain and you were supposed to be cheerful and sunshiny and so on and so forth.
And you know, that makes it hard. I mean it makes it all the harder when you’re not allowed to complain or point out that things are difficult and unfair and unjust. And I knew when I was writing that book [Blind Rage], that that would speak to a lot of people. Not just blind, visually impaired, Deaf, but all sorts of disabled people, I think. [LAUGH], I kinda funnel a lot of animosity onto Helen Keller, or the image of Helen Keller that we get that’s come down to us through the culture. In writing that book, I kind of came to terms with Helen Keller, but I got a lot of correspondence from disabled people about that book and I think much more so than from non-disabled readers.
Cathy: And the thing that’s interesting about Helen Keller and, in that book you were one of the people that helped bring this out…we blamed her for…being this perfect, you know, cheerful overcomer and yet she was the one more than a lot of other people that talked about the whole system that oppressed people. She was a socialist and a feminist, and workers rights and all this stuff. And she was thinking in terms of systems and I just would love to imagine what she would be like as a disability rights advocate today. You know, she would be so articulate about so many things and your book helped to make that clear, I thought.
Georgina: …there are a lot of things that she [Hellen Keller] had to do because of the time that she was living in…and I think she had to present a certain kind of image in order to be heard at all and so a lot of her work eh, you know, in worker’s rights and women’s rights, and you know, sort of health care for women, and disability rights, always had be kind of wrapped in a candy coating because otherwise, she wouldn’t have been tolerated.
I realize that I have the advantage that I can sort of stand on her shoulders and get away with another different ways of expressing those feelings.
Catherine J. Kudlick is the Director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and Professor of History
Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
Disability Remix blog: http://longmoreinstitute.wordpress.com
Georgina Kleege is a novelist, essayist, and translator. She specializes in creative nonfiction, disability autobiography, and blindness and visual art. She teaches courses in creative writing and disability studies. Dr. Kleege is Assistant Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Video of Georgina Kleege about her writing process for Berkeley Writers at Work series
Books by Georgina Kleege
Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller